Reform of the Palestinian Authority: Right action but for the wrong reasons

Background

It was inevitable for Arafat and his advisors to conclude that reforms are unavoidable. Basically, the Palestinian Authority had run out of credit, but then that was all too obvious for one and all (see Palestine 2).

In simple terms, a government whose nation had experienced the reverses that the Palestinians have endured over the last year or so would have tendered its resignation by now, and offered the people the chance to install a new administration. However, this is not a democracy, and things do not proceed in that way in the Middle East in any case. Sadly, that means reforms are only contemplated under duress, and they would be implemented in a manner that would have minimal impact on the vested interests currently in power.

In short, the proposed reforms appear to be a response to external pressures rather than internal critical requirements. As such they would have negligible effect when, and if, they are implemented. That would leave the Palestinians and their just cause exactly where they have been for over half a century.

Israeli Pressure

Sharon and his fundamentalist government insist that the Palestinian Authority should be ‘reformed’ before any negotiations are undertaken. The use of the word ‘reform’ is highly misleading here. What the Israelis want is an administration that would clamp down on any actions that would hurt Israel. That administration could be as undemocratic or unrepresentative as it likes as long as it met that precondition. In fact, to a large extent it would have to be undemocratic and unrepresentative to fulfill that role to Sharon’s satisfaction.

More to the point, a Palestinian administration that would be given the seal of approval by Israel, and presumably the US government, would have to ignore or undermine Palestinian popular aspirations in favour of Israeli demands. That has been perfectly clear for far too long. Successive Israeli governments have always envisioned security, meaning Israeli security, as the primary item on the agenda in any negotiations. They view everything else with supreme indifference.

Following that model of ‘reform’ one would see a ‘Palestinian Authority’ emerge that is antagonistic to, and alienated from, the Palestinian people. The focus of the struggle would move to a fight between the people and their government. Under these conditions, talk of a meaningful Palestinian state would become purely symbolic and of little real significance. Israel would have won not just the battle but the whole war.

No-one is any Hurry to Reform

‘Reform’ has now turned into the next excuse for the preservation of the status quo. The Sharon says no negotiations before reforms and Arafat says no reforms before a total Israeli withdrawal. That suits both men and their close associates.

As the Palestinians have to come to realise, delay is the only game in town. Atrocities committed by the Israeli forces, which would have been treated as genocide elsewhere, become commonplace and acceptable over time. The daily murder of Palestinians, unarmed and armed, civilian or uniformed, now go unreported. News media only report the unusual, in other words when Israelis are injured or killed. Palestinian casualties do not count even as ‘collateral damage’ any more.

In the meantime, Israeli settlements increase in number and scale and the prospect of the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state grows more unlikely each day. The ‘plan’ that Arafat is accused by the Israelis, and the US government, of having rejected rashly envisaged a Palestinian state comprised of three separate parts divided from each other by Israeli settlements. Very soon the plan on offer would have numerous ungovernable, semi-independent village-states. The ‘reformed’ Authority might even accept such an unworkable plan. In effect, the Palestinians would end up living in small settlements within the larger state of Israel. The present pattern would have been completely reversed, which has been the Zionist aim all along.

Is There an Alternative?

Yes, radical reforms that stem from the need for the Palestinians to have a civilian, trusted and popular government that could represent and legitimately speak for all the nation at home and abroad. That would require the setting up of political parties that offer alternative policies, absolute respect for human and political rights, free and independent press, and above all else a process of reform that is not managed and controlled by the present elite.

Unavoidably, for a short while Palestine would have to revert to being a mandated nation governed by a country appointed by the United Nations. High calibre Palestinian individuals who undertake not to play a political role in the eventual government, and there are many, could be appointed to assist in that transitional period. The process, however, should last only as long as it is necessary for the Palestinian people to elect their new government and for a local security force to be recruited, trained and equipped.

Difficult? Far-fetched? Of course it is. But it is also the only option that would allow the Palestinians to be given an even chance to promote their cause and to achieve some of their legitimate demands that have been trampled on by successive Israeli governments, frustrated by US administrations, and ignored by the rest of the world. Would the ‘old guard’ emerge as the victors in the elections. Very likely, but their administration would have acquired much needed legitimacy, an opposition and free press would be there to curb their excesses, and there would be other elections in future years.

Democracy is an Unwelcome Development

Above all else, the new Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians at large, would not be so easy to dismiss as being undemocratic, extremist, or irrelevant. For that very reason, this alternative would be resisted by Sharon, and any other politician that might replace him as prime minister in Israel. And for the same reason the US government would not look at it with any favour either. It goes without saying that for obvious reasons most of the Arab leaders would not welcome this development with relish. In consequence, there would be bombings and other acts of terror in Israel and abroad, organised and orchestrated by the appropriate security services irrespective of who the actual perpetrators might turn out to be.

The obstacles are substantial and all too obvious, both from internal and external sources. Nonetheless, the above alternative is the only option that would offer a sensible way forward. Oddly enough, it is also an option that would give the present elite a new lease of life. Would it happen? Unlikely, but we have to articulate the option before we could ask why it is not being considered and pursued.